Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2009
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A


Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

John in the Amazon III

Might a quick glance back at Queen v. Dudley help? Here it may be important to notice that there is a difference, what may indeed, at least, appear to be a rather significant difference between the case facing the four men on the high seas on board The Mignonette lifeboat and the pickle you or John is in. You're in John's shoes, remember?

Sketch of the ship, The Mignonette (1882)

There, in Queen v. Dudley, each of those in the lifeboat were part of the circumstances in which the killing of Richard Parker occurred. The court opinion in that case, Queen's Bench Division: 14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884), can be read online HERE. In John's case, John is an outsider. He just happens to show up. He is not part of the necessity that one die so that the others may live as it appeared to be the case on the high seas. If John accepts the offer he, at least, cannot invoke necessity as a justification for his committing murder or can he?

The Lifeboat from the The Mignonette (1884)

Circumstances would also be different if the Captain had said: "Look, either you kill one of the hostages or Pedro here will kill you?" But that was not the case. It is, however, often helpful in sorting out one's considered judgments in especially knotty cases of this kind to entertain alternatives where your judgment may be clear to you and then ask yourself what the difference is between the case where it is clear to you and the case where it isn't.

Or say John had appeared in the clearing with his three children and the Captain said," Look, either you shoot one hostage or Pedro here will kill all three of your children." That, too, would change the situation, no? But how would it change and why?

What if John refuses? What if John refuses the Captain's offer and walks away? Assume John glances back over his shoulder just as he is entering the jungle and sees that the Captain has shot all twenty of the villagers. Should John believe he is responsible for the death of at least nineteen of the hostages? Is he to blame? If so, why? If not, why not?

Or is there a difference between his responsibility for accepting the Captain's offer and his alleged responsibility for the Captain's killing of all of the hostages? Does John cause the death of one if he accepts the offer but not cause any deaths if he walks away? Isn't there a causal relation in both cases? What do you think? But even if you think John stands in a causal relation to the outcomes in both cases, might there still be a morally significant distinction between acts of killing and acts wherein one lets others die? Or does a distinction of this sort have no relevance in this particular case?

Might John's plight, John's predicament whether to accept or reject the Captain's offer be compared to the formulation of the Trolley Problem where five workmen will be spared if you pull a lever sending the trolley onto a side-spur, killing one, but nonetheless saving the lives of five?


Are the cases similar? Or is there a difference? What might it be? What do you think?


Anyway, there appears to be much to think about. What on its face may look like a fairly simple problem to solve, may be more difficult to resolve after all. And there are, no doubt, other considerations to take into account in puzzling this one through. Not just the ones mentioned above.

You should free to talk to others in the class about what to do, to argue amongst yourselves, to call friends, parents, relatives, brothers and sisters, to brainstorm and consult with them. If you feel confident about your answer, it may help to ask others what they think is wrong with your answer as well as to ask if they think you might have overlooked something and if so, what?

In the end, you will have to make an argument one way or the other, to come up with several powerful objections and respond to them. We would like to have an answer that you yourself would be inclined to give, for you to imagine that you are in John's shoes and have to decide whether to accept or reject the Captain's offer. What would you do? What do you think is the right thing to do and how might you best defend your decision as well as respond to objections

To paraphrase what one, very good contemporary philosopher, J. R. Lucas, has said:

"Philosophy has to be self-thought, if it is to be thought at all. It is an activity rather than a set of positions. You need to think out the problems and solutions for yourself, and although another person's philosophizing may help you in your own, you cannot accept their conclusions, or even understand their arguments, until you have already argued a lot with yourself."

Good Luck!


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